The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Fact-checking Episode One, ‘The Man Who Would Be Vogue’

Photo: FX

The second season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology series, titled The Assassination of Gianni Versace, explores the titular designer’s brutal 1997 murder at the hands of serial killer Andrew Cunanan. We’re walking through all nine episodes with Miami Herald editorial board member Luisa Yanez — who reported on the crime and its aftermath over several years for the Sun-Sentinel’s Miami bureau — in an effort to identify what ACS: Versace handles with care versus when it deviates from documented fact and common perception. The intention here is less to debunk an explicitly dramatized version of true events than to help viewers piece together a holistic picture of the circumstances surrounding Versace’s murder. In other words, these weekly digests are best considered supplements to each episode rather than counterarguments. Below are Yanez’s insights into the veracity and potency of events and characterizations presented in episode one, “The Man Who Would Be Vogue.”

What They Got Right

Miami Beach circa 1997
“The look and the placing of the time is accurate,” Yanez says, referencing Ryan Murphy’s time as a writer for Miami Herald. “I’m sure he would have been careful to make everything true. You can always tell when there’s a scene shot in Florida because the sun is so bright. You could tell it was a Miami Beach production, which it was.”

Versace’s final morning (and that dead bird)
“I was waiting to see people going the wrong way on the street,” Yanez says of Versace’s final walk into town, but it all scans as authentic. “From somebody asking him for his autograph and him denying it to the bird that dies along with him.” That bird, she adds, “sparked a panic that this was a Mafia from Sicily hit,” though it turned out to be “a freak, accidental thing.” Yanez also still recalls how the “puddle of dried blood remained there for days” from Versace’s wounds. If there was any discrepancy, it’s that she remembers him purchasing the European Vogue, not its American counterpart, at News Café.

The initial manhunt
“Because Cunanan had been killing people along the way, they very quickly identified him as a suspect,” Yanez says. “Here you see the police chasing somebody in a red polo shirt, and it turns out it’s not Cunanan, but that happened a lot. Many men who looked like Cunanan were all of a sudden rounded up. And [Cunanan] managed to escape. For the next 15 days, this community was in a total panic. In fact, there’s a reporter who was stopped because he looked like Cunanan and he was taken into custody for a couple of hours.”

The pawn-shop tip
“This was my big scoop,” Yanez shares of her encounter with pawn-shop clerk Vivian Oliva. “We’d just spent the day chasing leads, and one of them was that [Cunanan] had pawned a coin he’d taken from one of his murder victims up north, and he had used his real name and address on the pawn form. I stayed around and talked to the lady, and she says, ‘I hope I didn’t do anything wrong.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she says, ‘Well, I sent those forms to the police department.’ Immediately, I realized this was a week before Versace was killed, so that became a big fiasco for the Miami Beach Police Department because that form just sat on a detective’s desk. That pawn-shop lady is significant, and I’m glad to see they featured [her] in episode one.” Although, Yanez does clarify that the real-life Oliva, unlike actress Cathy Moriarty, is Cuban.

The arrival of Donatella
“Once Donatella arrived, Antonio [D’Amico] became a little bit of a bad guy,” Yanez says. “She took over, and he became a guy in the house. I know he was interviewed by the police, but when Donatella gets here, the family takes over and Antonio falls into the background.”

The delayed IPO
“We had reporters assigned to Cunanan and Versace himself and then to his company,” Yanez explains. “It was a delicate time for the company. That came out when we started looking into Versace’s business thinking this was a Mafia [hit], looking for that angle.”

Cunanan’s never-ending lies
Whether waxing on about his father’s pineapple plantations or aspirations as a novelist, Cunanan was notorious as a grand fabricator. (In truth, his father was living far from luxury in the Philippines.) “That’s the thing with Cunanan,” Yanez says. “He would make these stories up about his life, and as we found out later, half of it was a lie. He made it so difficult to get a grasp of who he was.”

What They Took Liberties With

The meeting between Cunanan and Versace
Yanez is generally lauding of Maureen Orth’s reporting for Vanity Fair, which led to her 1999 book Vulgar Favors, the primary source material for Assassination: ACS. But on the question of whether Cunanan and Versace became acquainted in 1990 in San Francisco and over post-opera drinks in Paris, she is somewhat equivocal. “[Orth] managed to find that they did have a past,” Yanez says. “That was the only explanation as to, ‘Why did you pick Versace?’” As far as the veracity of Orth’s account, Yanez affirms she has “no dispute, except that Orth is the only one who found a solid link. It was always very hazy for the rest of us. We could never say, ‘Yes, they met, yes they knew each other.’ She did. We could never contradict, and other newspapers couldn’t either.”

How the shooting happened
“We never knew what Versace said,” Yanez says about the designer’s final word. (The episode suggests that Versace had turned and faced Cunanan, but the autopsy results clearly state he was shot from behind in the back of the head.) “Supposedly he was ambushed. So that’s artistic license, to have him say, ‘No.’ The assumption at the time was Versace didn’t know what hit him.”

Who witnessed the murder
“[The episode] shows that there’s nobody around and Cunanan walks right up to him,” Yanez says. “I think, in reality, there were some people around and they did notice a guy in a red cap, but didn’t pay much attention to him. People who heard the shot and turned and then saw what happened afterward, not the actual shooting.”

The AIDS rumors
“That was a big rumor with Versace and Cunanan,” Yanez says. “And ultimately, Cunanan did not have AIDS. [Whether Versace had AIDS] is one of those questions we could never get a solid answer to. The specter of AIDS did play a role for both of them.” In regards to the episode depicting Versace taking prescription medication and Donatella referencing her brother being sick, Yanez notes, “It’s one of the many questions to this. They are hinting there was something wrong with him.” She adds that AIDS “was an angle we all pursued,” even if ultimately inconclusive.

The Polaroid photo of Versace’s body
“There was never a picture or anything like that,” Yanez says of Versace being placed on a gurney by the paramedics. As a result, she’s skeptical that a man snapped a Polaroid shot of the designer in his last moments alive. “The most famous picture is when the lead detective, Paul Scrimshaw, arrives and you see him near the puddle of blood. Back then, you know, not everyone had a cellphone.”

The magazine ad dipped in Versace’s blood
Newsweek did report that a fan “ripped Versace ads from a glossy magazine and daubed them in the designer’s blood,” but it’s doubtful the display occurred as depicted in “The Man Who Would Be Vogue.” “That area was sealed off for days,” Yanez says. “I remember hearing vaguely of [the fan], seeing it in a local newspaper. That might have been lore or something that happened late at night, but that house was sealed off immediately. They couldn’t get to those steps if they wanted to.”

Gianni Versace’s final outfit
“At the time, we didn’t say, ‘Oh, he was wearing his own design,’” Yanez says about the image of Versace on the operating table, his black T-shirt — emblazoned with his line’s signature Medusa logo — being cut up the middle. (Actor Édgar Ramírez is also outfitted in white shorts for the scene.) Versace, however, is documented as having worn a white tee and black shorts that morning. Adds Yanez, “I don’t think he was wearing his brand.”

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Episode One Fact-check